Journalism Plays Vital Role In Democracy

Former newspaper editor Paul Speller has been a journalist in the Isle of Man for more than 30 years. Now freelance, he has covered Tynwald and politics for longer than any of the current crop have been in parliament.

There are two things no decent journalist expects when they start their career: money or popularity. A thank-you is rare, too.

We are idealistic, nerdy news geeks who always want to know who, what, when, where and why. And we follow that up with how.

It can be laborious, dull, sometimes confrontational, frequently testing, and in need of skill.

When it results in a news story that uncovers something powerful people don’t want the rest of us to know about, it is exhilarating.

The role of the media is vital in a democratic society, yet often brings it into conflict with those at the top.

Last week’s schism when it was believed the chief minister wanted to scrap journalists’ questions at the end of Covid briefings  – hurriedly clarified to not be the case after criticism following his initial comments in Tynwald –  is not the first time the media and the government of the day have crossed swords.

For more than 200 years, journalists have annoyed the island’s powerful and campaigned for greater democracy and accountability.

Mona’s Herald founder Robert Faragher is included in A. W. Moore’s Manx Worthies, with the comment that ‘nothing would rouse him more speedily than cases of tyranny and oppression’.

Isle of Man Times editor James Brown - image credit iMuseum

The refusal in 1864 of Isle of Man Times editor James Brown to apologise for comparing MHKs with ‘donkeys’ earned him six months in Castle Rushen in the days before there was a gift shop. He was released after six weeks and sued the Keys

Two years following Brown’s incarceration, the Keys was an elected body.

In the early 20th Century, journalist and political campaigner Samuel Norris ended up incarcerated after protests over the lack of support for the tourist industry and the governor’s refusal to give a rates rebate. He later became an MHK.

The media has always been disparaged as much as it has been praised. Often it is justified but beware the politician who seeks to do this. (And such politicians beware, history tends to side the way you’d hope.)

The worthiness of a news story is in the eye of the beholder. But know who the beholder is.

Last week, Leader of the House of Commons Jacob Rees-Mogg made disparaging remarks – potentially libellous if ever said outside of Westminster – about a HuffPost journalist because he objected to a story. He even claimed you wouldn’t get that sort of journalism in The Times, although HuffPost’s editor later pointed out that that newspaper ran a similar article.

Here, there was a flashpoint in the media/politics bubble when some journalists interpreted remarks made by Quayle – in announcing a move to produce pre-recorded Q&A sessions from the government, without reporters’ input – as an indication he wanted to cut journalists out of the loop of all media briefings. 

Although later clarified, the fact journalists thought it was possible the government wanted to stop them doing their job is telling – and a little damning.

Whether consciously or not, barriers built up slowly between the government and the journalists whose job it is to hold them to account.

Years ago there were weekly briefings with the chief minister and/or a government minister, where announcements were made and journalists could raise their own issues. They built up a mutual respect – and trust – between ministers and the media.

They were ditched long before covid and that mutual trust appears to have been replaced by mutual mistrust.

The contretemps over the Q&A sessions at the end of Covid briefings was almost inevitable.

When things were going well, they were quite convivial. Recently less so.

But the suggestion that people switching off could be a reason to get rid of the questions shows a clear misunderstanding of the role of politicians, the media and the Q&A.

If people turning off is a justification to drop something, no one would ever broadcast from Tynwald.

A political journalist’s role is to gather information and disseminate it to the public, on behalf of those who do not have time to sit at parliament or attend a press conference.

Broadcasting media briefings from start to finish shows the work in progress but often not the finished product – a completed news report with context.

It’s like an old CD box set of your favourite band, where you get to hear the demos and outtakes of songs you love. Interesting a couple of times, but you soon skip over them to get to the finished article.

In an untelevised press conference, probably half the questions asked do not merit a story after an answer is given, but a journalist does not know which half that is until they have those answers.

Journalists are taught never to assume something and that there’s no such thing as a stupid question. There is such a thing as a repetitive question – but it might one day elicit a different answer and that’s why it is asked again.

None of this necessarily makes for interesting viewing but it is important it takes place.

Government media briefings should not be about ratings they should be about information – and accountability.

Nor is the media asking to not be held accountable itself or to be above criticism – it is important it is subject to both and behaves responsibly.

No decent journalist objects to criticism.

But attempts by politicians to sideline and intimidate are a different matter. In my 30-plus years here, I have witnessed and been on the receiving end of several such moments. They are dangerous.

And that is why last week’s row – thankfully short-lived –  sounded alarm bells until the issue was clarified.

We may not be at the point of Gef journo Sam and his friends being threatened with Jurby prison but attempts by those in power to intimidate and sideline the media, even to the smallest extent, should always be resisted.

I think it was Albert Camus, rather than a meme generator, who said: ‘A free press can, of course, be good or bad, but, most certainly without freedom, the press will never be anything but bad.’

One thought on “Journalism Plays Vital Role In Democracy”

Leave a Reply